The "false science" of implicit bias?

A family member of mine recently emailed me this article to get my perspective.

As a scientist and speaker who often discusses implicit bias in my presentations the title immediately caught my attention: “The False ‘Science’ of Implicit Bias”  

Please tell me I am  not  spreading false science!

Please tell me I am not spreading false science!


The last thing I want to be doing is spreading false science! But as I read through the article I was almost disappointed in the lack of evidence for such a dramatic title. The article details some of the “issues” with one of the tools scientists have used to measure implicit bias- the Implicit Associations Test (IAT).

The IAT measures the miniscule differences in time that it takes for your brain to pair strongly associated words (think beach and sand) versus less strongly associated words (like beach and microphone). The test becomes a bit more insidious when these words relate to race (black versus white) and words that denote either positive or negative emotions (happy versus dangerous).

A majority of test-takers, [90-95%], are faster at the sorting game when white faces are paired with good words.

The article continues to describe that scientists have struggled to connect these biases to any real-world behavior, implying that the test is largely, well, useless.

Actually, I’ll just let the author of the article speak for herself here:

Test scores have almost no connection to what IAT research ludicrously counts as ‘discriminatory behavior’—trivial nuances of body language during a mock interview, say, or a hypothetical choice to donate to children in Colombian slums rather than South African ones.

Ludicrous, you say? Given how much research has been done on the power of body language and what the author denotes as “trivial nuances,” I doubt she has familiarized herself on just how detrimental these subtle differences in body language can be. Here’s just one example of how a physician’s nonverbal cues (eye contact, body positioning, and touch) may result in discrimination between white and black patients.

Body language is important! 

Body language is important! 

Look, the IAT is far from perfect. I am the first to agree that it has a number of flaws, but it doesn't stop me from using the IAT for generating awareness. I still think of it as a fantastic tool to open the discussion of our pre-wired biases independent upon how well (or poorly) we compensate for them consciously.

While “the false science of implicit bias” article focused mainly on race, giving alternative meanings for possible "pro-white" scores, I'd love to see the same arguments made with the focus turned to gender and leadership.

For example, I give an IAT with words that relate either to family (parent, child, home, etc.) or leader (boss, chief, etc.) and ask test takers to pair male and female faces. Even in a room of all female CEOs I hear groans as the women struggle to achieve a close association with their own image (female/leader). That pretty much rules out the argument that the results are somehow associated only with one’s "greater familiarity" of their group.

Painful realization when female CEOs are biased against themselves as leaders. 

Painful realization when female CEOs are biased against themselves as leaders. 

The author continues: 

The need to plumb the unconscious to explain racial gaps arises for one reason: It is taboo to acknowledge that socioeconomic disparities might be caused by intergroup differences in cultural values, family structure, interests or abilities.

Plumbing the unconscious simply allows us to have the conversation. I think when the IAT is used as a tool rather than a condemnation of our biases, it opens the door to allow the discussion of a much deeper dive into difficult/uncomfortable topics. Let's have these discussions! Let's not allow them to be taboo, as the author suggests, but let's do so in the enlightened state that we all carry our own biases - independent of how consciously we enact them. 

The main obstacles to racial equality now lie not in bias but in culture and behavior.

The last sentence of this article completely loses me. Is not bias embedded into our culture and behavior? Simply because we are not seeing a direct correlation between subconscious bias and conscious behaviors in some individuals does not mean bias isn't still an acting force. We simply need to better understand the tools that these individuals are using to compensate and overcome this wiring. Let's put our focus there, on understanding the postive ways to overcome bias, rather than in picking apart a tool of awareness. 

Just my two cents. I'd love to hear yours.